Welcome to my annual best of series, where I look back and reflect on my favourite things of the year.
In a year that saw me reading a bit less than usual, I am happy to report that I still managed to find some outstanding books to read in 2021.
In a nutshell, I chanced upon some seriously impressive Australian fiction, excellent debuts and both older and new releases from some of my favourite authors.
So, without further ado, here are my top twenty one books of 2021.
(Below, I’ll go into more detail about my selections and also give book suggestions depending on what you’re looking for).
1. Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
2. The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller
3. Second Place by Rachel Cusk
4. The Labryinth by Amanda Lohrey
5. Beautiful World, Where Are You? by Sally Rooney
6. Here is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan
7. The Outline Trilogy (Outline, Transit and Kudos) by Rachel Cusk
9. Heartsick: Three Stories of Love, Loss and What Happens in Between by Jessie Stephens
10. Love & Virtue by Diana Reid
11. From Where She Fell by Susan Johnson
12. Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout
14. Real Estate by Deborah Levy
17. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
18. In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
19. Help Yourself by Curtis Sittenfeld
20. The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth
21. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
And the winner is …
So as you can see, Australian writer Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss was my outstanding favourite this year.
Sorrow and Bliss is a wonderful, contemporary fiction novel that has all the ingredients I love – a dysfunctional family and cast of characters who felt real and whose interactions and dialogue consistently had the ring of truth about them. There was also a quiet brilliance in this story too – which deals with mental illness and some other heavier themes – in that it is funny, witty and heartbreaking in equal measure. I adored all the characters and particularly enjoyed the sibling relationship of the main character and her sister.
Sorrow and Bliss, along with the excellent The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller and Beautiful World, Where Are You? by Sally Rooney were books I simply could not put down this year. I read all of them in a day or two, while juggling work and other commitments.
You’ll see there were a number of outstanding books by Australian authors in this year’s list, as there often is. I was so impressed by the quiet, understated quality of Amanda Lohrey’s The Labryinth and Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld, both of whom won significant literary prizes this year (The Miles Franklin and Stella Prize respectively).
I could not put down the non fiction but reads like fiction debut Heartsick: Three Stories of Love, Loss and What Happens in Between by Jessie Stephens.
Still on debuts, Diana Reid’s Love & Virtue was excellent too, as was the quirky Loner by Georgina Young.
I thoroughly enjoyed catching up with the latest instalments of several of my favourite authors – Sally Rooney, Elizabeth Strout, Debra Levy and Curtis Sittenfeld although it was my late coming to Bristish author Rachel Cusk that made the biggest impression on me this year. I read four of her books this year and they account for half of my top ten. I really enjoyed her latest novel Second Place.
The book that surprised me the most was Here is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan. Written in verse, this beautifully written – but totally accessible and readable – book was compelling and refreshing change from the usual offerings, and that’s coming from someone who has never read a book written in verse.
If you are looking for a page turning holiday read?
- The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller;
- Sorrow and Bliss;
- Beautiful World, Where Are You? by Sally Rooney;
- Heartsick: Three Stories of Love, Loss and What Happens in Between by Jessie Stephens;
- From Where She Fell by Susan Johnson; and
- The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth.
If you want to mix up what you’re reading and try reading something interesting and different from the rest?
I’d recommend the original, raw and dreamy memoir In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi which explores a young American-Nigerian women’s past and present and Here is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan.
If you’re looking for something quirky and light – but still punchy and well written?
Check out Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata and Loner by Georgina Young.
If you love historical fiction?
It’s hard to go past the beautifully written Hamnet by Maggie Farrell.
If you’re looking for a gritty, contemporary read?
Animal by Lisa Taddeo is full on and won’t disappoint.
I would also recommend The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld.
If you want to read writers at the top of the writing game?
In terms of sublime writing, it’s always hard to go past Debra Levy and I’d put Rachel Cusk in the same, elevated category.
Amanda Lohrey’s writing in The Labryinth struck me with its skilful simplicity and reminded me of the sublime writing of Elizabeth Strout.
I always love the dialogue between Sally Rooney’s characters too – it did not disappoint in her latest novel.
The dialogue in Sorrow and Bliss was terrific too.
If you’re looking for some armchair travel?
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is set in Tokyo, while Outline is set in and around Athens.
The story in Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi moves between the US and Nigeria while much of The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller takes place in The Hamptons.
For those – like me – that like to ponder womanhood, motherhood, friendships, ageing and creativity?
I’d recommend all of Rachel Cusk and Debra Levy’s books. Their books are incredibly thought provoking, insightful and beautifully written especially Cusk’s Outline series and Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living.
If you want to explore short stories?
I’d recommend any of Curtis Sittenfeld’s collections. Her incredible novel Rodham was my favourite book of 2020 too.
My reflections on this year’s selections
As a final reflection, it only occurred to me when I was writing this post that all of the books set out above are written by women. This was not intentional and something I will ponder moving forward as it’s unusual. In previous years I’ve enjoyed many books written by men, especially Australian writers such as Richard Flanagan, Christos Tsiolkas, Christian White and Trent Dalton.
I also noticed that I was drawn to fiction this year – particularly contemporary fiction which explored women’s lives, relationships and choices in various settings and at different life stages.
I did not read much in the way of non fiction or crime/thrillers this year either, which is again, unusual for me. I think the best explanation for this is that there was so much information and what felt like unreality this past year, that I sought out and took comfort in the experiences of other women – whatever their circumstances or challenges. I can also see that, with a few notable exceptions, I gravitated to books written by Western women. I’d like to read more broadly this coming year and in particular, read books by first nations authors. I have several in my pile ready to read.
One non fiction book that I did read and thoroughly enjoyed was the memoir of sorts written by my two friends Mandy Hose and Kate Jones – The Invisible Life of Us. I didn’t include them above because how do you rank your friends’ book and of course I’m totally biased. It’s awesome though – and definitely recommended.
To read more detailed reviews of all of the above books, head to my monthly reviews posts which you’ll find here.
Also Highly Recommended
To read my ‘best of’ posts for the last couple of years, head to:
- My Favourite Books of 2020
- My Favourite Books of 2019
- My Favourite Books of 2018
- My Favourite Podcasts of 2018
- My Favourite Books of 2017
- My Favourite TV Series of 2017
- My Favourite Podcasts of 2017
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So over to you, what was your favourite book this past year? Have you read many or any of the books listed above?